What does the study of Ethnomusicology actually entail?

Where better to look than the Society of Ethnomusicology website? According to them, the field of study boils down to looking at music in its cultural context. “Ethnomusicologists approach music as a social process in order to understand not only what music is but why it is: what music means to its practitioners and audiences, and how those meanings are conveyed.”

Basically, what makes these folks unique is that they answer questions such as how and why music has evolved specifically into everything that it has. Whilst this sounds like a very specific field of study, it couldn’t get more multidisciplinary. Ethnomusicologists can come from a wide range of study fields, including social sciences (ie. gender studies, ethnic studies etc.), humanities, and theatre.

What unites them is their methodology and ‘philosophy’ in studying how the music we all love has come to be. For example, a few of the preliminary principles, or guiding ideas, that most ethnomusicologists follow include: having an open mind and letting all music, regardless of where it comes from or how it’s made, work its magic and message flow over you. In terms of academics, this mentality basically means not having a biased outlook or letting personal opinions and tastes get in the way of researching and analysing the music and its history.

Moreover, it involves understanding music as a social construct. Here, the Society reminds us that it’s good to “(view) music as a human activity that is shaped by its cultural context.” Essentially, this involves keeping in mind that music is simultaneously a product and innovator of the culture in which it is created, and having that thought inform your academic practise and theory.

So, where can studying ethnomusicology take you career-wise?

Just about anywhere, it seems. It is far from ‘alternative’ career or nuanced hobby. Ethnomusicologists can be educators, teaching classes as a part of music bachelors to more specialised majors. They can be historians, cultural archivists, policy influencers, musician assistants, promoters at festivals and record labels. They are paid to increase the appreciation of good music of all kinds!

How would one enter such a career path?

Typically, universities will have information how to add ethnomusicology as a subject, diploma, or major to your course, but if you want to test the waters, an interest group or forum is a good place to start!